Here are the five most significant takeaways from Russia’s war in Ukraine:

  1. The war against Ukraine demonstrates the unfortunate reality that military force — not just its deterrent threat, but its use — still matters in relations between states;
  2. nuclear blackmail is a powerful tool for aggressor states, some of which still harbor a desire for old-fashioned territorial acquisition;
  3. the political reality is shaped by events on the battlefield, and winners reap the rewards of military success;
  4. the transatlantic relationship is absolutely essential to international peace and security; and
  5. China under Xi Jinping, like Putin’s Russia, is a revisionist power seeking its own aggrandizement and will not work within the current international system.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a watershed, marking the end of the post-Cold War era of relative peace and stability. It is also a far cry from the era of the global war on terror when states believed that the greatest threat to their security came from violent non-state actors, radicals, and terrorists.

Ukraine is a brutal reminder of what war looks like and how deadly it is when modern states organize violence against each other. This is Europe’s largest war in 80 years. In a single year, at least 200,000 Russian personnel (or mercenaries supporting Russia’s war effort) have been killed and wounded, more than 100,000 Ukrainian troops likewise, untold thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died. In the town of Mariupol alone, authorities estimated that 20,000 civilians were killed as the Russians turned the city into “a freezing hellscape littered with dead bodies.” More than five million Ukrainians are internally displaced. More than eight million have fled the country.

In international politics, force, more precisely military force, still matters, for good or ill. When Russian threats against Ukraine, diplomatic pressure, and “unconventional” efforts to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy failed, Russia reverted to the use of its military.

Both Russia’s full-scale invasion (and its continued occupation of a large part of Ukraine) along with Ukraine’s successful resistance demonstrate the enduring power of force. Russia’s assault was blunted and then turned back because of Ukraine’s military capabilities and Western support. When Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022, words, norms, international law, and even the agreements Russia itself had signed, did not protect Ukraine. Western economic sanctions did not stop the Russians from taking Kyiv or push them back from Kherson. Ukrainian soldiers did that, supported by massive amounts of Western equipment.

Second, we have been reminded that some nations are still willing to change borders through the use of force. In the case of a nuclear power like Russia, this is particularly dangerous for non-nuclear neighbors. States are willing to defend their own sovereignty fiercely, but a non-nuclear power’s partners (even if nuclear armed) are less willing to risk open conflict with a nuclear aggressor for fear of escalation. This leaves non-nuclear powers quite vulnerable to an aggressive, nuclear power seeking territorial adjustments. Remember that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not have nuclear weapons when seeking to wipe Kuwait from the map in 1990 and suffered the ignominy of expulsion by a US-led coalition.

For all of Ukraine’s heroics, Russia still occupies much of the provinces (oblasts) of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. It remains fully in control of Crimea. All five have been formally annexed by Russia. Ukrainian courage and Western opprobrium are unlikely to reverse this. While Western leaders are committed to supporting Ukraine as much as ever, it is difficult to imagine these lands being returned to Ukraine solely as the result of negotiation. Very few states simply hand back territory that they have won in battle. Restoration requires defeat in battle and a nuclear Russia is unlikely to suffer a defeat of that magnitude.

The dangerous lesson, unless Ukraine can reverse the occupation of its eastern provinces on the battlefield, is that even in today’s world of international law, aggression can pay. This is a terrifying conclusion for small and weaker countries. And it is a lesson that goes far beyond Russia. Turkey, for example, continues to occupy northern Cyprus, and Cyprus is a member state of the European Union — a warning to Ukraine that even European Union (EU) membership is no guarantee of territorial integrity.

These harsh realities reflect another lesson reinforced by the conflict in Ukraine — what happens on the battlefield enablespolitics between nations. Politics — the negotiated outcomes of disputes between states — remain shaped by the position of armies on the map. Ukraine’s battlefield success has been underpinned by support from Europe and the United States. But success begets success. Ukraine’s initial victories motivated the West to step up assistance, and its continuing triumphs in the field make continued support possible. If Russia gains the upper hand on the battlefield, this could change; support may then fall away, forcing Ukraine to negotiate.

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Point four is the ability of the United States and its democratic allies to cooperate in support of Ukraine. This combined financial, political, and military power has demonstrated to the world the enormous resources in the West, particularly NATO. The alliance’s economic and political power coupled with the support of a mere fraction of its conventional military equipment, in the hands of a nation of slightly more than 40 million, has stopped a supposedly mighty Russia in its tracks. Bonds between Europe and the United States have grown stronger as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. Rising from all-time lows in 2020 (at the very end of the Trump Administration), attitudes toward the United States have improved across the world. NATO’s favorability has also increased. Unsurprisingly, Russian favorability has declined precipitously. In a broad sense, the United States and Europe have reaffirmed their role as the pillars of the post-war peace and the international order.

At the same time, China’s standing has suffered. Fewer people in the world trust President Xi. During the previous decade, there were whispers that China’s only wish was to either take its “rightful place” within the international system as a hegemonic twin to the United States or to support the norms of the international system in coordination with international organizations.

But Xi’s rule has become more autocratic, and these themes have evaporated. China is now a rival to the United States and the “Western” system established by the United States. China, in spite of the security assurances it gave Ukraine as part of the Budapest memorandum of 1994, its economic and political influence in Russia, its rhetoric about the importance of sovereignty, has done nothing to halt Russia’s aggression or restore peace. This is a key lesson — China, like Russia, is a revisionist power.

It is a hard truth that China benefits from the current war. It draws the attention of the United States to Europe and therefore away from Asia, where it too is making illegal land grabs most notably in the South China Sea. The war in Ukraine burns through billions of dollars of NATO equipment and financial resources that might otherwise be used to counter Chinese influence. It creates the potential to sow discord within the Western alliance. It weakens Russia, making it more and more dependent on China for everything from diplomatic cover to war materials while purchasing its hydrocarbons at heavily discounted rates.

This war is fundamentally altering the international landscape in which we live, shaping our lives in ways that will endure for decades to come. Those contours have yet to take shape because Ukrainians and Russians are fighting to establish this new topography. Since they are shaping our future world, the people of Europe and the United States cannot lose focus, even after a long and brutal year of war.

Andrew R. Novo is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with CEPA’s Transatlantic Defense and Security program. He is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, DC, and an adjunct at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The views here are entirely his own and do not represent the Government of the United States, the Department of Defense, or the National Defense University.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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